Take Five (Please)

Caroline Rocher and Damian Woetzel in the NYCB-DTH collaboration Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.Photo: Paul Kolnik

Here is my report on the five recently unveiled ballets created under the auspices of the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project. (Four earlier ones were discussed in these pages May 29.) I wish I felt confident that these works – perhaps even one of them – justified the time and money, the energy and attention that all concerned, from artists to audiences, have expended on them. What I feel instead is a profound sense of futility, watching a company that, despite the richest resources and the most compelling reasons to maintain its former glory, cannot find a viable contemporary identity and is, instead, steadfastly marching down a path to nowhere.

The most outrageous entry of the whole lot was Peter Martins’s Harmonielehre, to a John Adams score. Every once in a while, it would seem, Martins, whose work tends toward the dry and mechanical, attempts to follow the advice of folks urging him to consult his heart. Harmonielehre, which begins in a jungle whose inhabitants happily fulfill their natural, primitive instincts and ends up in a cloud-strewn outer space with a finale of celestial fireworks, looks like Martins’s take on life, death, and intergalactic rebirth. The jungle love-in, utterly unconvincing because of its rigid patterns, features costumes cut from the same cloth (painted in swirls of orange and green) as the backdrop. Jock Soto and Charles Askegard, an ill-matched pair of emissaries of death, ludicrous in black dinner gowns, manipulate Darci Kistler endlessly in the air – a cruel reminder that this once-entrancing dancer’s technique has disintegrated. Hair unbound, women bedecked in shmattes of white tulle waft aimlessly around a stage hung with school-pageant clouds. Finally, much is made of a nymphet from the School of American Ballet, whose role I don’t even want to think about. This is a ballet that should never have been allowed to happen.

Tributary, a collaborative effort from Robert Garland of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Robert La Fosse of the NYCB, provided novelty for a program saluting the thirtieth anniversary of DTH, the company founded by Arthur Mitchell, then a principal with the NYCB, to allow dancers of color a greater presence in classical ballet. The new piece was framed by Balanchine’s Agon and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue – works in which Mitchell was memorable – performed for the occasion by mixed DTH and NYCB casts. This juxtaposition was tactfully done, with the visiting DTH stars, Donald Williams and Caroline Rocher, acquitting themselves elegantly and NYCB’s few black dancers included in the mixed ensembles.

The disparity in technical prowess between the NYCB and the DTH dancers was glaring only in Tributary. The piece showed the DTH personnel at a disadvantage in a way that Balanchine, a master at enhancing the strengths and concealing the weaknesses of the dancers at his disposal, would have avoided by instinct. The Garland-La Fosse ballet, which glides along the surface of its Mozart score, is discomfortingly naïve on other counts as well. Its references to social dances built on geometric floor patterns are so simplistic, you’d think the choreographers had had no access to the lessons to be learned from Balanchine’s Square Dance. The stars of the piece, Williams and Kyra Nichols, in their extended duet, disguised the feebleness of what they’d been given to do with their nuanced, luminous dancing.

The square-dance motif surfaced again in Miriam Mahdaviani’s Appalachia Waltz, set to folk-inflected music by Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor. Mahdaviani’s choreography tends to be sweet, innocent, and unassertive compared with the hard-edged, often mean-minded school-of-Peter Martins vein that prevails at the NYCB. This piece is no exception. Corny references to agrarian America abound, with “guys” in shirtsleeves and suspendered trousers and pert “gals” in ponytails cavorting in hoedowns, indicating through a stylized gesture or two the odd bit of farm labor, and succumbing to bouts of nostalgia about youthful romance. Two problems defeat Mahdaviani: She can’t mate her vernacular references with classical ballet as she understands it, while the phrases she creates in both categories remain shapeless and underpowered. Inevitably, her piece refers you to Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring and Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, and the moment you think of those landmark works, you know that Mahdaviani’s Americana lacks the requisite passionate conviction. Albert Evans and Jennie Somogyi salvage the occasion somewhat as a quirky beau and a rural femme fatale who is part sexpot, part hoyden.

Christopher d’Amboise and Kevin O’Day both handed in the sort of glossy product that has all the outward signs of being up-to-the-minute and no indication whatsoever of possessing any inside. O’Day’s Swerve Poems (to a score commissioned from John King) is by far the more complex and sophisticated effort. Its handsome, arrogantly inscrutable, and eventually pointless manipulation of the stage space through design seems to govern the choreography as well. The ballet consists, essentially, of a series of images that would look fabulous in a glossy magazine, especially if photographed by Helmut Newton. The justification for everything that occurs lies in surface effect rather than with some urgency or meaning resting secure at the heart of the ballet. A duet parceled out to several couples in sequence seems to aim for significance, as does the coupling of the classical and the colloquial (you know – grand jeté, somersault), as does, even, the fact that men and women alike are clad in tennis dresses. Not a single one of these portentous hints achieves a resolution. You’d think the paying customers would demand their money back.

D’Amboise’s Triptych (to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta) is, for all its slick surface, embarrassing in its combination of incompetence and hollowness. The compositional flaws are blatant: This is a dance that essentially doesn’t move and lacks a third dimension. Most often, the performers are rooted in place or locked into a grid formation, flatly displaying themselves dead front or in profile, with none of the sculptural effect that makes dance a plastic art. As for meaning, the ballet abounds in trite, pointed suggestions that contemporary existence is a blend of angst and alienation. But we knew that already.

Take Five (Please)